Apple looks into smart clothing, smart furniture

Apple has been granted a patent (number 10,286,636) for “fabric-based items with three-dimensional shapes.” It involves the manufacture of not only “smart clothing,” but also “bags, furniture, and other items from materials such as fabric.”

In the patent filing, Apple says that to form a 3D object, fabric is typically cut and joined at the edges to form the desired shape. Forming objects by joining separate pieces of fabric together in this way results in seams along the edges of the object. Apple says that seams can be visually unappealing and can create weak points in the structure of the object. 

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To reduce the number of seams in an object, some fabrics are compression molded into the desired three-dimensional shape. Compression molding involves applying heat and pressure to a laminated fabric to form the desired shape. Apple says that, while this method reduces the number of seams, the compression molding process can impart undesirable characteristics onto the fabric. For example, compression of the fabric can cause the texture of the mold to be transferred onto the fabric or it can lead to surface deformations that compromise the original look and feel of the fabric. Apple thinks it can do better.

Here’s Apple’s summary of the invention: “A fabric-based item may be vacuum-formed into a three-dimensional shape. The fabric-based item may include one or more layers of fabric and one more polymer layers that can be molded when heated. To vacuum-form the fabric-based item into a three-dimensional shape, the fabric based item may be heated until the polymer layer reaches a forming temperature and becomes soft and pliable.

“When heated, a vacuum tool is used to pull the fabric-based item onto a mold so that the fabric-based item conforms to the shape of the mold. As the fabric-based item cools on the mold, the polymer material hardens into the shape imparted by the mold. The polymer material is able to hold the fabric layers in this shape after the layers are removed from the mold.”

Of course, Apple files for — and is granted — lots of patents by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Many are for inventions that never see the light of day. However, you never can tell which ones will materialize in a real product.